Mars Orbiter Mission: A Question of Priorities?

28th September 2014:

A reply to this article which appeared in The Telegraph on 27th September 2014:


I sincerely hope that the piece titled “Tragedy of Errors” published in The Telegraph on 27th September 2014 is intended as a satire. Because if it is not, the article is itself an act of unpardonable error, and a most tragic one at that. It is a grave error because it fails to see the point of the launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission. And it is tragic because of its regressive attitude in an age where India is displaying the vision and guts to think beyond the petty problems that plague her. Some of the reasons why I find the article’s dreary outlook to be alternately amusing and shocking are:

First, the article claims the event to be a dose to “bolster flagging morale”. Whether India’s morale is flagging is purely a matter of opinion and going by the way India’s democracy and economy have fared in recent times, the morale is anything but flagging

Second, the article claims to take a contrarian view at the risk of being deemed “anti-national”. However, the article’s bigeest flaw is not anti-nationalism but its anti-scientific, anti-progressive and non-logical rhetoric. The author fails to see the value of sending a probe to Mars as not just the first step to gather knowledge for similar missions in the future but also as progress to know more about a possible future habitat for mankind itself. It is even possible that the information gleaned by the Orbiter could lead to a better life for human beings in our present habitat itself, but we will never know that till we seek to. The greatest value of space missions is an exploration of the unknown. But as the author seems immune to such lofty ideals, the more immediate need to scout out a potential home/ resource-mine for the future, not just for people of this country but the world over, should be a (tangible) idea easier for him/ her to connect with.

Third, to answer the first question raised in the article: it is the wrong question to ask in the first place. Measuring returns in only “tangibles”, as meant in the article, would lead to only linear growth/ survival and would be akin to “taking the biggest risk by never taking a risk at all”. Knowledge obtained by one’s own space mission can never be bought from failed missions of other countries. In that sense, the tangible value of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)’s success is infinite. As for the intangibles: yes, MOM adds to the memories. But not the “detritus” variety the author refers to, but rather memories of the most prized sort, which offers role models for the next generation of Indians and boosts their belief in themselves, encouraging them to nurture ambitions of achieving beyond their station by overcoming material constraints, as achieved by this most frugal of space missions.

Fourth, the second question asked in the article betrays the short-sighted thinking the article is founded upon. Money spent on space research is an investment, not an expenditure. And individuals as well as nations need to invest to grow in the long run. That investment will have to be a sacrifice made in the present for a better future. Yes, health and education need investment too, but it is wrong to assume that one of this comes at the cost of others. Funds are rarely a constraint for the able. As for this mission, MOM’s budget puts films and football clubs of the developed nations to shame, leave alone their space missions. Those who still question such investments should not smirk when talented Indians egress the country for more fulfilling pastures.

Trying to brand such a pattern of thinking as “civilized” only marks oneself as living a few centuries in the past.

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